China Finds a Gap in Japan’s Maritime Chokepoints

TOKYO – A flotilla of Chinese warships transited an important ocean strait off Japan’s northernmost island for the first time this week, passing within clear sight of observers onshore.

The PLA Navy vessels had just completed a major training exercise with Russian warships nearby and were using the Soya Strait to head into the far Pacific. It was just the latest Chinese excursion through narrow and potentially-strategic transit points in and around Japan’s home islands, and another example of China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

The five PLAN warships – two destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship — were spotted Sunday in the Soya Strait, a narrow gap between the northern tip of Hokkaido and the southern tip of Russia’s Sakhalin Island.  It was the first time that ships from China’s growing navy have ventured into that waterway. The Soya Strait is one of just two passages from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, and was considered a key chokepoint by Cold War naval planners.

The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force still patrols the area regularly by air and sea, and operates surveillance facilities ashore.

By sticking to the southern, non-Russian half of the strait, the PLAN ships remained within international waters. Although they reportedly made a quick passage into the Pacific, they were under no obligation to do so. Under international law, they could have conducted surveillance or research activities, carried out training or live-fire exercises, or just taken a fishing break. All within peering distance of Japanese farmland.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

As Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in Tokyo, explains it, the Japanese government was searching for a way to allow the U.S. Navy to transport nuclear weapons through Japanese waters without violating Japan’s post-war “Three Non-Nuclear Principles.” Those principles, still in effect, forbid Japan from making or possessing nuclear weapons, or allowing them to be brought into Japanese territory.

By claiming just a three-mile limit instead of the maximum 12 miles, the Japanese were able to maintain a strip of international water through the Soya Strait, also known as the La Perouse Strait, and three other key transit points: the Tsuruga, Tsukishima and Osumi straits.

By sticking to those narrow channels, American aircraft carriers and submarines could steam back and forth at will, laden with nuclear warheads and maintaining America’s nuclear deterrence, without violating Japanese policy. A technicality, sure, but it worked. (The Navy, by the way, never confirms or denies that its ships carry nuclear weapons.)

Full article: China Finds a Gap in Japan’s Maritime Chokepoints (Time)

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